Now we begin a new phase of our project “Rethinking Church.” We have laid out the essential features of the church in three areas: its constitution, its work, and its practices. Reading church history and observing the church of today make clear that the church never appears in the world as its essential self only. It always and inevitably embodies itself in forms and uses means derived from human culture. These forms and means are not essential but accidental features. [See essay #2 for discussion of this distinction.] Ideally the church would in every situation choose accidental forms and means that embody its essence and advance its mission effectively, never obscuring, hindering, or replacing its essence.
But in this world conditions are never ideal. Christ and the Spirit are infallible, but we are not. God is holy and sinless, but we still need grace and forgiveness. The church looks forward to its future redemption, perfection, and glorification. But we are not there yet. The people of God are sinners, each and all. Its leaders are sinful and fallible. This has been so from the very beginning. Peter and Paul argued vigorously about the nature of the gospel (Gal 2). The Corinthian church suffered divisions (1 Cor. 1–3). A perfect church has never existed. Jesus promised that the “gates of Hades will not overcome” the church (Matt 16:18). He did not promise to protect it from all mistakes, sin, and foolishness. Believers are “led by the Spirit” (Rom 8:14), but we must still “live by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7).
In his providence, God directs the church to its appointed end despite its sins and errors. He uses fallible leaders and sinful people to work his will. Consequently, from a human point of view the history of the church moves in a zigzag pattern with a lurch to the right followed by a lurch to the left. It takes one step forward and two steps backward. Its path is littered with heresies and schisms, spectacular successes and abysmal failures. It has produced martyrs and persecutors, ascetic monks and indulgent bishops, peacemakers and warriors. But it still exists! Christ is still preached, and sometimes the light pierces the darkness and for a moment we see clearly what is, what could be, and what will be.
What, then, can fallible and sinful people do to “rethink church” for today? Is it possible to do a better job today of embodying the essential features of the church in the world than we have in the past? We should not be too quick to say “yes.” Of course, with God all things are possible. But we must not mistake God’s possibilities for our abilities. Despite the dangers, however, we must try. Only with “fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), humility, grace, self-criticism, diligence, patience, thoughtfulness, penitence, and prayer do we have hope of actually doing more good than harm for the church in our age.
Next Time: Should the church seek (or even accept) approval, legitimacy, or privileges from the world?